Pope Francis Turns 1: A Year of Surprises

Pope Francis prays during his general audience in St. Peter's Square. (CNS photo/Tony Gentile, Reuters)
Pope Francis prays during his general audience in St. Peter’s Square. (CNS photo/Tony Gentile, Reuters)
“A Jesuit named Francis … a little something for everyone,” I texted my colleague who works at a Franciscan University.

I watched as Pope Francis emerged on the balcony last March and bowed his head, asking the crowd to pray for him. I was taken aback at the new Holy Father’s humble gesture. Not only could you hear a pin drop in St. Peter’s Square at that moment, but many of my students were captivated by the event, many of whom aren’t even Catholic.

“I love this ceremony,” said a Jewish student standing near me. “Does the new pope do this every time?”

“We could only hope,” I joked. “No, this is new. Maybe this guy will surprise all of us.”

It indeed has been a whirlwind year since the election of Pope Francis and right out of the gate this new pontiff was full of surprises. Busted Halo® looks back at Pope Francis’ first year and highlights some of the surprises he had in store for the world.

#1 The First Francis 

Never before has there been a pope with the name Francis. Some assumed the new pope was referring to Francis Xavier given his Jesuit background. But the truth soon came out that the new pope’s first thoughts were of St. Francis of Assisi and the saint’s focus on the poor. “Don’t forget the poor!” were among the first words Bergoglio heard from a fellow cardinal after being elected. And he hasn’t forgotten them.

#2 Walking Humbly

Gone are the days of red capes and ermine hats. Pope Francis refused to wear a new cross, insisting on wearing the one he wore as a bishop. He wears simple black shoes instead of the famed red slippers. He replaced the Vatican limousine with a Ford Focus. When he was shown the papal apartments he remarked, “Three hundred people could live in this room!” and chose to live in a simple two-bedroom apartment in the Vatican guesthouse. His habits aren’t all that different from when he was Archbishop of Buenos Ares, but now that he’s pope, his choices say a lot to the Church and to the world.

#3 Relaxing Security Measures

Pope Francis has driven his security team into a tizzy. He visits local parishes in Rome, and greets parishioners at the back of the church. He’s even driven his own car and prefers an open-air ride to the traditional bulletproof Popemobile. At World Youth Day last summer, the pope’s car made a wrong turn and the crowds engulfed it. Security went nuts. Pope Francis loved it! You could see him laughing and reaching for young people’s hands. The pope continues to visit the poor in shantytowns and slums and some even claim that he sneaks out at night to visit the homeless.

#4 The Pope Will Now Take Your Questions

Originally, Pope Francis said that he doesn’t give interviews. But then he surprised an entire plane of reporters when he openly took questions for more than an hour. That initial conversation at 20,000 feet and subsequent interviews have led to another surprise …

#5 “Who Am I to Judge?”

Perhaps the most quoted words of Pope Francis’ first year are these: “If a person is seeking God with a sincere heart, who am I to judge?” This was his response to a question about gay clergy. The pope later went even further in clarifying his remarks to include all gay men and women and not just the clergy that he was asked about. This nonjudgmental attitude is a highlight of Francis’ papacy. Another example: Pope Francis includes atheists among those that may be redeemed. While not signaling any change in Catholic dogma, the pope is clearly shifting the attitude and the tone of the Church. At minimum, the pope has called for us to open our hearts a bit wider and to accept all people as seekers of God on a journey together.

#6 Have Mercy 

Pope Francis has centralized the call for all of us to be mindful of our need for mercy from God and for each other. He reminds us that the Church is like a field hospital where we need to “tend to the wounds” of people. He implores less of a focus on some of the hot-button issues (abortion, contraception, gay marriage) and instead seeks a return to the heart of the Catholic faith, which is joy in the fact that we are loved sinners. God’s mercy is open to all of us and we should celebrate that.

#7 Under New Management

Someone I know spent time in Argentina when Pope Francis was the Superior of the Jesuits there and claimed that, “He ruled with an iron fist.” The then-Jorge Bergoglio often seemed at odds with the government over their positions on birth control, abortion and same-sex marriage. His positions were even called “medieval” by the Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Pope Francis has said of his being named the superior of the Jesuit community in Argentina at a very young age (36): “That was crazy!” and admitted many mistakes, including his handling of two kidnapped Jesuit priests by the government who Bergoglio may have inadvertently put in harm’s way during the Dirty War in Argentina. Friends say the pope is hugely remorseful over this period of his life and has worked hard to make amends. His reflective attitude is rooted in Ignatian Spirituality. It also, I believe, attests to Francis’ forgiving nature and his embrace of those who many find irredeemable.

#8 Washing Feet 

Last year during Holy Week, the pope celebrated Holy Thursday not at the Vatican but rather at a jail for what we would term juvenile delinquents. Most of the teens he visited were incarcerated for drug use and deemed by many to be beyond redemption. Not only did Pope Francis visit them on one of the holiest days of the year, he also included them in the ceremonial washing of the feet. The pope washed the feet of 12 teenagers, two of whom were female and two of whom were Muslim. (Traditionally, this has been a symbolic re-enactment of Jesus washing the 12 disciples’ feet and limited to men’s participation.)

#9 Taking Care of Business

The Vatican needs much reform and Pope Francis is at the forefront of that, specifically working to clean up the Vatican bank and decentralize much of the Vatican so that bishops can have greater authority over local dioceses. In doing so he has challenged many a priest and bishop to be much more simple in their approach to ministry and in doing so he has shown much …

#10 Humor 

In his “Joy of the Gospelapostolic exhortation, Pope Francis quips that there are some Catholics who are like “Lent without Easter,” and that when it comes to homilies there are two great burdens: “Those of us who have to write them and those of us who have to hear them!”  The pope always seems playful and is quick to laugh. That’s the kind of leader we need.

Happy one-year anniversary, Papa Francisco! Viva il Papa.